By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal
The lead story coming into this week's NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Phoenix centers on this year's Chase for the Championship being the most exciting ever and possibly being the closest championship run since 1992. More on that below, but the first topic to be discussed is Carl Edwards, who put a wide distance between himself and the other 42 drivers as the clear cut favorite to win Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500K.
The performance Edwards displayed in Friday's and Saturday’s practice sessions may get overshadowed somewhat because of all the hoopla of the Chase, and perhaps rightly so. But in Las Vegas, where legal betting action is taken, Edwards' performance stands out more than any other driver has before a race all season. Not only is Edwards the pole-sitter for Sunday’s race, but he was fastest by a large margin over every other driver in all three practice sessions. He was fastest in every single lap time as well as consecutive five- and 10-lap average speeds.
On Monday, the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book had Edwards posted at 20-to-1 odds. When the adjusted odds are released Saturday evening, the odds are sure to be a small fraction of that with Edwards becoming the favorite. Just to give an idea of how far he’ll drop, Jimmie Johnson was the pre-race 7-to-2 favorite. Because of dominating every facet of practice and the race being relatively short with only 312 laps, Edwards should be posted in the range of what Johnson’s original price was.
There are a few things going against Edwards this week, beginning with a lack of winning. It’s hard for a sports book to make a driver a favorite that hasn’t won a race in almost two years. Edwards has had past success at Phoenix, but doesn’t own a win in 12 starts. When he won nine races in his magical year of 2008, the best he could do at Phoenix was tie his career best with two fourth-place finishes. However, he never had a car handle as well as the one he has this week, a car that had modest success with a sixth-place finish at Kansas.
As for the hoopla of the Chase, it’s never been better in NASCAR. Not only do we have three drivers with two races to go separated by a mere 59 points, we have trash-talking and mind games being played by one of the teams. Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, made several statements regarding his team's superiority following the Texas race they won last week, which elevated them to first in points. The comments have served as bulletin board material all week for Jimmie Johnson’s team, which will look to make Ford eat his words.
The switch of pit crews from Johnson's and Jeff Gordon’s teams may help Johnson a little, but the real concern for Johnson’s team should be its lack of having a typical Johnson-like car in practice at Phoenix. Following Saturday’s final practices, where he could only muster seventh best, Johnson doesn’t have the look of a winner. It’s very surprising, too, because the car he’s using won at Phoenix in this race last year and also won at New Hampshire in June.
Hamlin is looking to continue his personal goal of duplicating 2009 down the stretch. He’s already bettered Texas; now he has to do better than third this week and win at Miami. His chances are greatly enhanced because of using his winning chassis from September’s Richmond race. During practices, Hamlin was fifth best in happy hour with good average speeds.
The only negative I could see with Hamlin’s chances down the stretch is the target put on the team by his crew chief. That type of cocky attitude usually backfires in other sports and is seldom seen from upper-echelon NASCAR teams, especially with stakes so high. Ford’s boss, Joe Gibbs, would have never given his opponents any added incentive like that before a big game whiling coaching the Redskins.
Kevin Harvick swept the 2006 season at Phoenix and will be using his third-place car from Martinsville. His goal is to finish ahead of Johnson and Hamlin this week and take one more shot at it all in Miami next week. He was just behind Edwards in average speeds during happy hour and had the fifth-fastest single lap.
The one driver who could give Edwards a run for the Vegas money this week is Gordon, who has gone almost as long as Edwards without winning. The only category Edwards didn’t dominate over the weekend of practices was overall average speeds during happy hour, where Gordon came in tops. Gordon probably should have won this race in the spring, but got beat on the final restart by Ryan Newman.
Newman had a good practice as well, but he is in the danger zone for all bettors and fantasy players because he's on "baby watch." His wife is expected to give birth at any time and Ron Hornaday is on standby should Newman leave. The uncertainty of Newman makes him tough to bet this week because if his wife goes into labor, Newman is gone whether the race has started or not.
On a side note, new father and Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan will make his first Cup start since 2005 when he drives the No. 71 car on Sunday. The car doesn’t have much of a chance to finish within the top 20, but it is good to see such a likable guys as Gaughan given the opportunity to show his talents on the highest level. The car will be sponsored by the South Point Hotel and Casino, which is owned by his father, Michael Gaughan.
There are two live long shots to watch this week based on solid practices. A.J. Allmendinger is 75-to-1 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 60-to-1 at the Hilton sports book. Earnhardt Jr. had a great run at New Hampshire with a fourth place and is using the same car this week on a track that runs very similar.
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